E-waste is the trickiest waste. Ever thought on these lines? The sky-rocketing production of electronic products is racing with the pace at which it is discarded as well. We have reached a stage where we cannot imagine survival without mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio –video equipment, printers and the like. The most replaced of these are mobile phones, followed by computers.
The micro particles that make up the sophisticated electronic gadgets can prove the worst hazard to our environment, notes an expert. See whatBahrainPolytechnic Sustainability Officer Dr Claire Cosgrove, has to say:
“Municipal, biomedical and industrial wastes are much talked about these days. However, electronic waste is a topic which needs major attention in today’s world.”
WEEE, short for Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment, can no more be regarded a ‘wee’ bit of worry, says Dr Cosgrove. Explaining further, she adds that sources of e-waste are mainly from telecommunication industry, electrical and electronic industry and cable wastes.
“E-waste is of interest because of two reasons – first, because it contains valuable metals like copper, gold and silver, which are processed for recovery. Second, they contain harmful metals like cadmium, mercury and lead,” she says.
The hazardous and toxic materials in e-waste can be a matter of major concern. Televisions and monitors-cathode ray tubes (CRTs) contain lead (8lbs) while printed circuit boards – plastic and copper – contain chromium, lead solder, nickel and zinc.
The common batteries contain nickel and cadmium, the older systems have mercury in them and the older larger equipments have polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
All these are harmful as they can cause brain damage, kidney or renal failure, cell mutations and cancer, highlights Dr Cosgrove. She also points out that theUSproduces almost half of the world’s e-waste, but only recycles about 10 percent.
Studies show that at least half of US’s e-waste ends up overseas, such as in China, India or Nigeria.
During 1997 –2007, 500 million personal computers became obsolete (2 computers per person) and 750,000computers were dumped in landfills this year. If not the landfills, the options are they are often exported offshore and then disassembled, she explains. She adds:
“Problems arise with disassembly when it not done formally. It goes through extensive manual dismantling and crude recycling methods, whereas formal disassembly will be highly automated processes which are well-developed and regulated.”
Dr Cosgrove says a major portion of e-waste disassembly processing is informal, unorganized and unregulated. “Basic techniques like acid leaching and open air burning are adapted, which can prove hazardous to health and environment,” she points out.
“Crude techniques can be physical dismantling using tools like hammers and chisels, removing parts by heating over coal-fired grills or stripping of metals in open-pit acid baths and the like. “Processes like burning plastic cables to get copper can lead to chest and lung problems,” she says.
Waste Has its ‘Worth’
The main motivation towards amateur disassembly is to extract precious (raw) metals like gold and silver. (One metric ton computer scrap can fetch more gold than 17 metric ton gold ore!!!) Mobile worth – a ton of old cell phones (6,000 units) yield 3.5 kg silver, 340 gm gold, 140 gm palladium and 130 kg copper which totals up to US$15,000!
“It is a source of living, provided the best practices using the correct tools and personal protective equipment are adopted. This will help longer and healthier lives,” she opines. “Major challenges of e-waste lie in the lack of collection and lack of sorting and separation at source, apart from lack of awareness, she adds.
“Responsible electronic management, responsible recycling and reverse supply chain logistics are the suggested practices to keep a check on e-waste,” says Dr Cosgrove. “Successful take-back programs and market based incentives can also do the magic. Reverse supply logistics works when producers take responsibility for reuse and recycle of their products. Responsible Recycling can return money to original owner, lower carbon foot print and generate new business. It can also increase employment opportunities and make resources available to others.”
Dr Cosgrove highlights that the ultimate aim of friends of environment must be to manage the mass of electronic /electrical equipment, minimize environmentally hazardous disposal processes and minimize human health impact.
“Ours should not just be a CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) but must also be ‘ISR’ (Individual Social Responsibility),” she points out.
The decision is in our hands. Are you willing to act, at least now?